In Side by Side, Anita Kushwaha’s main character Kavita Gupta undergoes an agonizing ordeal surviving guilt and loss as a result of her brother Sunil’s suicide. While she grieves, her fierce loyalty compels her to try to keep her already unraveling family together. To add to her suffering, Kavita is also forced to deal with the stigma surrounding suicide, as well as the painful awkwardness of the “business of death.” As her own support system fails her when she is at her lowest, Kavita seeks out empathy from strangers, and ultimately for a life with meaning.
“After losing a loved one to suicide, I felt compelled to write a novel that explores the ripple effects and complex grief that only survivors truly understand. Guilt is a large part of this loss like no other,” said Kushwaha.
Kushwaha cleverly divides Kavita’s journey into three phases: fall, crawl, and rise. Knowing that Kavita would eventually ‘rise’ made it easier to get through some of her more precarious moments. From the outset of the novel, I felt like I was in step with Kavita, becoming infuriated when loved ones betrayed her and rooting for her to take a stand, but ultimately respecting her choices.
Providing some relief for readers, Kavita possesses a sense of humour, which reveals itself during some of her darkest moments. At one point when talking to the spirit of her late brother Sunil, she asks, “You could at least send me a sign, like, if a seagull shits on me, that means no.”
Set mainly in Ottawa (where the author lives), Kushwaha’s beautifully-told tale also draws on the Gatineau hills for a poignant locale. While this story is not for the faint of heart, it is a realistic, sensitive account of the impact grief can have on those left behind.
“If Side by Side is about anything, it’s empathy and connection,” Kushwaha explained. “When Kavita experiences alienation in the wake of her brother’s passing, and virtually every human relationship she has fails her, she finds the empathy and companionship she desperately needs in books, in the experiences of others who have lived through trauma and had the courage to share it. This sense of belonging and recognition is the kind of thing readers understand well. It’s why we read, after all.”
As someone who has dealt with the loss of a loved one, I know that grief can be paralyzing, brutal, and isolating. However, who you become after you’ve journeyed through that pain can be someone far stronger and more resilient to life’s challenges.
I commend Kushwaha for creating such a rich character and telling her story with such empathy. Her novel reminds us that we could all show others and ourselves more compassion.